Hilary Swank does not do breezy, on screen or on the phone.
She is friendly but purposeful and on point during a conversation about “The Homesman,” a stark, sometimes gruesome Western. Swank stars in the film, out Friday, with Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed.
To Swank, 40, the fictional role of Nebraska homesteader Mary Bee Cuddy carries feminist themes beyond the character’s unusual status as a single woman and farmer. The sexism Mary Bee encounters exists today, Swank said.
Swank, who herself was born in Nebraska and raised in Washington state, has chosen roles with societal implications, usually regarding gender, since she won an Oscar for her transformative performance as the transgender Brandon Teena in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
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A working, mid-level actress in the 1990s (she was “The Next Karate Kid” and did a stint on “90210”), Swank aimed high after that Academy Award. A second lead Oscar, for her wrenching performance as a boxer in Clint Eastwood’s 2004 boxing drama “Million Dollar Baby,” increased her clout and enabled her to maintain those high standards.
She has played compelling figures in well-intentioned failures – such as the boring Amelia Earhart biopic “Amelia” – and in under-seen gems such as “Conviction,” in which she played an attorney trying to overturn her brother’s murder conviction.
Yes, Swank co-starred with Gerard Butler in the unabashedly commercial, critically drubbed “P.S. I Love You.” But Butler’s character was dead, and Swank’s performance, as a woman coming to grips with widowhood, heartfelt.
Anything glossier would not be Swank, whose lack of artifice renders her unsuitable for fluff. Her natural sincerity eradicates the barrier between actress and audience as she reveals her characters’ pain, and more poignantly, the hope that accompanies it.
The irrepressible qualities of Swank’s bright eyes and smile become more noticeable for being repressed so often on film. In “Homesman,” the joy-squashers are men who call Mary Bee “plain,” “bossy” and not marriage material.
More principled than her detractors, Mary Bee volunteers, through her church, to transport three mentally ill frontier wives from Nebraska to a church in Iowa, where they can receive help.
Before departing, Mary Bee happens upon a drifter and former soldier (Jones) who will help her for a price. Jones’ scruffiness contrasts with Swank’s propriety to lend the characters’ journey a bit of an “African Queen” effect.
Swank’s performance has made some Oscar prognosticators’ short lists. Regardless of what happens with this role, a third best-actress Oscar – a feat achieved only by Katharine Hepburn, who won four (Meryl Streep, who appears briefly in “Homesman,” owns three, but one is for a supporting role) – seems possible, given her age and affinity for meaty roles.
Why did you want to play this character in “The Homesman”?
I thought (the film) was really beautifully written, and I would say there was a real timelessness, even though the movie took place in the 1800s. To me there was so many things that I could relate to it, with being a woman in 2014.
I think it is a real feminist movie in a lot of ways. It really touches on the objectification and the trivialization of women, and that is something I think about a lot, and something I would like to see change for us women.
Feminist themes run through much of your work. Do you choose roles on that basis?
I would say I do not actively search out roles or stories (like) that, but clearly they are the ones I am drawn to, and that touch my heart. And that I relate to.
To use an example, (journalists) will ask me in an interview, “When are you going to play a pretty girl?” And my jaw drops to the floor. Can you imagine anyone saying to a man, “When are you going to play a handsome man?” No one would ever say that.
We did play Mary Bee Cuddy’s physicality a certain way to help tell the story. But to me, she is one of the most beautiful characters I have ever played, because of her virtues and her values and her morals.
Tommy Lee Jones always seems like a man of few words. Was he that way on set in New Mexico?
No, in fact. And that’s why art is so important in the world. Because it gives us a way to express ourselves. Tommy Lee was completely animated and alive and firing on all cylinders as a director, because he was passionate.
What has winning two Oscars meant to your career?
It gives you the ability to continue doing what you love. It gives you more opportunities. People will send you more scripts. And if a movie gets nominated, then more people are going to see the movie.
Do you ever think about your potential to become one of the most awarded actors ever?
Well, I do in that it is something people will bring up to me. I have to say, it is a great honor to be spoken about in that way, and for people to think it gives me an ability to be a role model for girls, and women. To be able to say, “You are capable of doing anything you set your mind to.”
And certainly I think I have been blessed with a lot of luck, and there’s that great saying (that) the definition of luck is when preparation meets opportunity. So, work hard and don’t be limited by people’s ideas of you, and shape who you are.
Do you have an overriding principle in choosing roles? You don’t work all the time like some other actors.
I don’t do movies back to back. The types of roles that are compelling to me, and the stories that are compelling to me, are few and far between. It is something I hear now and then – “Why don’t we see more of you?” Quite frankly, it is because there are not more of those stories (I) want to tell.
I would say probably one in 50 scripts are good, and one in 100 are great. So they are just hard to come by, and once you do find them, you just have to hope that luck is on your side, and you get to be a part of it.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.